Six Nations 2014: Warren Gatland stays true to tried and trusted squad to rise above turmoil
Warren Gatland already knows a thing or two about laying hands on the union code's glittering prizes, but if he makes Six Nations history over the next few weeks by coaching Wales to a third successive title, his reputation as a rugby alchemist will be secure. The 32-man squad he announced looked extremely powerful, but with several key players in contractual limbo, others plying their trade abroad and still more lamenting the viciousness of the political turf war west of the Severn, the New Zealander may have a difficult job bringing people together in common cause.
Gatland did not feel the need to pick any uncapped players, largely because the likes of Jonathan Davies, Jamie Roberts, Gethin Jenkins, Ryan Jones and the captain, Sam Warburton, were all expected to recover from various aches and pains in time to play in the forthcoming competition.
The one surprise was the demotion of Lloyd Williams, the Cardiff Blues scrum-half, who looked like a world-beater in the making a couple of years ago. He found himself overtaken by Rhys Webb of Ospreys, who turned in a decent Heineken Cup performance against Northampton last weekend, and the Scarlets No 9 Rhodri Williams.
Unsurprisingly, given the sharp deterioration in relations between the Welsh Rugby Union (which pays Gatland very handsomely) and the four regional teams, who barely have so much as a groat between them, there was much talk of off-field matters as the squad was confirmed. The coach openly acknowledged that a problem existed, without shining even the faintest light on how matters might be resolved.
"We know there are some politics going on but we will put that to one side, come together as a group and focus on our rugby, which is something we can control," he said, a day after wondering aloud in public about the sustainability of the four-region structure in a volatile environment, increasingly dominated by big-spending French clubs and rebellious English ones.
"We have the opportunity to create history and that will give us extra motivation," he added. "We have three games at home and two tough away matches against Ireland and England, but they were the fixtures when we won our Grand Slams in 2008 and 2012. We know it can be done."
Assuming the current crocks are declared fit sooner rather than later – the France-bound Scarlets centre Davies is the most seriously injured, having wrecked a pectoral muscle during the autumn internationals – and no one mangles himself anew on regional duty this weekend, Wales will chase an unprecedented Six Nations hat-trick with a group of players gifted and experienced in equal measure. They may not have vast strength in depth at tight-head prop – who has? – but when a coach can choose between Davies, Roberts, Scott Williams and the compelling James Hook in midfield, or run two of Warburton, Justin Tipuric and Dan Lydiate on the flanks, he is not exactly stranded in a selectorial desert. They will take a good deal of stopping.
Ireland, who gave the new coach Joe Schmidt a lift with their bold performance against the All Blacks before Christmas, named a 44-man squad featuring seven new faces, many of whom were filling gaps left by more familiar names who will stay on the outside looking in until they prove their fitness – high-profile individuals like the Lions wings Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo, the lock Donnacha Ryan and the hooker Richardt Strauss. The most interesting of the uncapped brigade was the unusually rapid No 8 Robin Copeland, who has been in startling form for Cardiff Blues of late.
On the club front, Gloucester finally confirmed what everyone has known for ages: namely, that the England outside-half Freddie Burns will leave Kingsholm at the end of the season. He is widely thought to have signed for Leicester, although the Midlanders are keeping mum for the moment.
Backs L Williams (Scarlets), L Halfpenny (Cardiff), G North (Northampton), A Cuthbert (Cardiff), S Williams (Scarlets), J Roberts (Racing Metro), J Davies (Scarlets), J Hook (Perpignan), R Priestland (Scarlets), D Biggar (Ospreys), M Phillips (Metro), R Williams (Scarlets), R Webb (Ospreys).
Forwards P James (Bath), G Jenkins (Cardiff), R Bevington, A Jones (both Ospreys), S Lee, Rhodri Jones (both Scarlets), R Hibbard (Ospreys), K Owens, E Phillips (both Scarlets), A W Jones (Ospreys), L Charteris (Perpignan), I Evans (Ospreys), A Coombs (Newport-Gwent Dragons), Ryan Jones, J Tipuric (both Ospreys), S Warburton (Cardiff, capt), D Lydiate (Metro), A Shingler (Scarlets), T Faletau (Newport).
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